Sentenced to life by Michigan's juvenile injustice system

A just-released report titled “Basic Decency: Protecting the human rights of children” is both heart breaking and infuriating.

The study looks at the way Michigan treats juveniles found guilty of first-degree murder. It is grim reading.

As noted in the introduction:

To date, 376 young people have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Michigan. Only one other state has more.

What’s infuriating is that treating children as young as 14 in this manner is clearly irrational, and morally indefensible.

There is good reason why the law mandates someone has to be 18 before they are allowed to  vote or sit on a jury or sign a contract. And there’s also good reason why no other country in the world puts juveniles behind bars for life without the possibility of parole. Again, from the report:

Contemporary neurological science confirms the cognitive differences between a child and an adult. An examination of the human brain demonstrates the undeveloped frontal lobe in adolescence compared to adults. This is the area of the brain that is associated with impulse control, planning, risk  evaluation, and comprehending consequences. Scientific research confirms that the part of the brain which allows for mature decision making in not yet fully developed in teenagers.

It  is not that children fail to recognize right from wrong. Instead, it is this cognitive underdevelopment of the brain, coupled with an inability to appropriately respond to peer pressure, adult persuasion, and lack of control over their environment, that increases the risk of impulsive and dangerous activity among youth.

So, if it makes sense that a kid must wait until the age of 18 to vote, how can anyone justify sentencing a 14 year old to prison for life without the possibility of parole?

Part of the problem is that judges are prohibited from exercising digression.

As noted by Kimberly Thomas, a University of Michigan Law School professor:

The most sympathetic 15-year-old accomplice to a felony-murder and the most sociopathic adult serial killer will receive the same sentence,  without any judicial ability to take stock of the difference between the two for sentencing purposes.

One-third of youth currently serving life without parole sentences in Michigan did not themselves commit a homicide but instead were convicted for their lesser involvement as tagalongs,  lookouts, or  for following the orders  of adult co-defendants.

And then there’s the truly heartbreaking part: photos and stories of kids who will spend the rest of their lives in prison unless change occurs.

Stories like that of Nicole Dupure, who was 17 when her 19-year-old boyfriend robbed and killed an elderly Macomb County woman while Dupure sat in a restaurant next door. Looking to cut a plea deal, the boyfriend implicated her. She maintains she had no involvement in the crime, but will spend her life behind bars while the boyfriend, who was allowed to plead to a second-degree murder charge, will be eligible for release before he turns 40.

The principal author of the report is Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.



Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.